Dashrath Manjhi, a poor labourer from Gehlaur village near Gaya, Bihar carved a 360 ft x 30 ft x 25 ft path deep through a hillock using only a hammer and a chisel for 22 long years only to shorten the travel between Atri and Wazirganj blocks of Gaya from 55km to 15km. No easy feat, but to chronicle his life into a film is as difficult.
For though death brought glory to Manjhi labelling him the Mountain Man with The Bihar government proposing his name for Padmashree and the Films Division producing a documentary The Man Who Moved The Mountain, his life was scattered among the stories told and untold in the village where he spent 22 years striving to carve a path through a stubborn moment.
Hence, the real tribute was in August 2015 when writers-researchers Varadraj Swami and Shahzad Ahmad paved the way for Ketan Mehta-directed Manjhi: The Mountain man, a feature film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manjhi and Radhika Apte as Falguni Devi.
Excerpts from an interview with Varadraj Swami who, after penning The Mountain Man and his Cannes glory with The Endless, is now all set to direct his maiden feature film Gulmohur …
Tell us about Dashrath Manjhi…
Dashrath was an ordinary boy who ran away from home at a young age to work in the coal mines. He returned to marry Falguni Devi, the love of his life and when his wife wasn’t sent officially to his house with the bidaai, he walked up to the terrace of his in-laws and created a ruckus getting the whole village to listen to him. He had his way. Now that was Manjhi who would not let even a mountain come in his way.
What made Manjhi take up this task?
One day, Manjhi’s wife while crossing the Gehlaur hills to bring him lunch slipped, fell and later succumbed to her grievous injuries. Manjhi decided that he would carve a path and form a road to help his village. And he began his digging.
But it wasn’t easy…
Of course, it wasn’t. He was labelled a lunatic and was mocked for his efforts.
Did time change that?
Yes, Manjhi’s resolve found him support from villagers who helped him buy tools and gave him food. It was no easy task researching for the film. Our mission was successful as nine years after his death, a stamp was released by India Post with his name in the personalities of Bihar Series.
How was it researching for the film?
It was super strenuous and simply exciting. Ketan Ji gave us a four-pager and we knew that to translate this into a film, we had to be there at the place where Manjhi once lived. We had to blend among locals to get the real story. No one should ever know that we were researching for the film.
So how did you go about it?
We spent days in the village talking to the villagers and living amid them like nomads. But we got amazing insights into the life of an ordinary man who single-handedly accomplished an extraordinary feat while the world only stopped to mock him.
But you were on your own in no-man’s land, literally. Were there times when you simply wanted to run away?
We admit, there was no hotel within miles of the village. We had to depend on the hospitality of the villagers. Some opened their homes to us while others feared our intent. But we got anecdotes and incidents never known before. A lot of interesting stories came from Manjhi’s in-laws. The film was later shot in the real location that we captured.
Once the research was done, was it easy chronicling the life of Manjhi. He had a life full of drama from what you narrated…
See, when you hear something, it sounds exciting. But how do you chronicle the celluloid story of a man who only cut through stone for 22 years and his wife was dead? Will global audiences understand? Will urban audiences empathize? Do the villagers really care? So many questions, so many stories… To put together the incidents from the stories heard in a linear order and see a beautiful audio-visual story come to life was terribly difficult and hence, was exciting and exhilarating.
Did you ever revisit the place after scripting?
Yes, we did. As both Ketan ji and we felt the need to revisit to listen to, analyze and get into the mood of the film. We look for what we need and in the totality and we needed expressive people.
How is the situation there?
The people are very poor. But I am one of them by birth. I am a simpleton villager with a love for storytelling. I love to listen and tell tales. But I had no connect to come to Mumbai, forget being a part of the film industry.
How did you come to Mumbai then?
Well, my father wanted me to be doctor. I took the chance to go to Patna and ended up joining theatre. I could not get into NSD and so I went to Mandi in Himachal Pradesh to get into theatre. There, I found many people who wanted to come to Mumbai and we all came here.
Whom did you meet here?
I knew Tigmanshu Dhulia and Prakash Jha but I did not have the guts to meet Prakash Jha. So I joined Tigmanshu Dhulia in Charas as fourth assistant. Tigmanshu told me I should take up writing and so I went to Bhimsen ji to learn the art of writing.
How did Ketan Mehta happen?
I loved Sardar and Mirch Masala and was his ardent admirer. I used to often visit him and
In the time here, I made short films. The first was The Endless, a silent film. Someone suggested and I sent it to Cannes. It was selected and screened alongside Udaan, and won critical acclaim. Then, I made a few more short films. They won awards and acclaim.
Ketan ji knew about my journey and the fact that I belonged to the same area as Manjhi. I think he knew I was the right man for the job. And we set off on our mission. The rest is history. I also went on to be the Associate Director of the film.
Shahzad and I are penning a film on a freedom fighter. I am also directing a feature film called Gulmohur again penned by both of us. It is a beautiful film on a woman inspired by Hindi films that change her life. It is full of life and entertaining, a la Bollywood style. At the same time, it is deep-rooted and empowering.
Which kinds of films excite you?
I can never classify films into art or commercial category. Those barriers don’t exist. I simply want to make meaningful films.
Your advice to aspiring writer-researchers…
Google is updated by people who tell their own filtered or exaggerated stories. If you want to tell real tales, go get a firsthand experience. If I had not been there, I would not have got 42 hours of film footage. It was this trip to Manjhi’s village that gave us the impetus to tell the story as it was and shoot the film in the real locations. That gave it the desired impact. Even a case and piracy could not affect the success.
Did the case and piracy stress you?
Yes, totally. Someone claimed rights to Manjhi’s story though it was public domain. Besides, we had permission from his family. And then the film got leaked ten days before release. Here we were in an auto and our auto driver is watching the pirated film. It wasn’t easy worrying whether people would go to theatre to see the film.
They did. Today, how does your family react to the should-have-been MBBS turned researcher-writer-director?
After Manjhi - The Mountain Man, my farmer family is our remote village in Bihar believe that I have finally arrived! And my father is waiting to know what I will be doing after 12 years of time pass and one success!